The History of Irish Clockmaking? All but Forgotten, a Dealer Says

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The History of Irish Clockmaking? All but Forgotten, a Dealer Says

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DUBLIN — Ireland was a hub for clockmakers in the 18th century, a fact often forgotten in the current industry focus on technological innovation and high-end collaborations.

Also, the country’s earliest records of watchmakers were destroyed in the early 1920s during the conflict that surrounded the creation of Northern Ireland, so details are elusive. (The 1901 census showed 690 watchmakers and 36 clockmakers in Dublin alone.)

“It’s basically detective work,” said Kevin Chellar, a horologist and proprietor of Timepiece Antique Clocks here. He has spent three decades finding and restoring antique Irish clocks and researching their makers. Fittingly, his small, crowded shop is in the former clockmakers’ quarter between the cathedrals of St. Patrick and Christ Church, in the old Viking settlement area of Wood Quay.

Such clocks are rare — he now has three, the first time he has had so many at once — so they account for only about 10 percent of Mr. Chellar’s business, which primarily focuses on British and European clocks. But, he added, the Irish clocks “elevate the status of the shop.”

Two are Irish bracket clocks dating from 1730 and 1760. (The name refers to a tabletop clock also designed to sit in a wall-mounted bracket to allow for its hanging weights.)

The third is a grandfather clock from 1725 that Mr. Chellar calls “an absolute miracle” — even though it will take him two or three weeks of full-time work to restore it.

Mr. Chellar is a 1978 graduate of the Irish Swiss Institute of Horology, which closed in 2004, and he repaired clocks and watches for many jewelers before establishing his business in 1986. It was 10 years later that he began to find enough Irish clocks to start selling them.

The grandfather clock, which Mr. Chellar recently bought from the widow of a Dublin collector, was made by Joseph Booth, whom he described as one of Dublin’s master clockmakers. It has “J Booth Dublin” engraved beneath the Roman numerals on the chapter ring, the circular feature around the edge of the brass clock face.

And its case was made of walnut. “Walnut lasted ’til 1730 and then was superseded by mahogany,” Mr. Chellar said, explaining that the hardwood from the Americas was more resistant to pests like the woodworm that can destroy walnut. “The walnut veneers on the door are wafer thin,” he said, pointing to the clock case. “They’re set in pine. It’s nearly three centuries old and there’s no warp at all.”

Also, he added, the clock has its original feet, the first time he has seen that on a grandfather clock of the period. “It might seem mundane to most but to us it’s mind-blowing!” he said.

In 2005, Mr. Chellar sold another Irish-made walnut grandfather clock for 80,000 euros, the equivalent of $94,125 today. But prices have declined, he said, and the Booth clock is listed at €35,000, which includes its restoration.

The Irish clockmaking industry really began to prosper, Mr. Chellar said, after King William III of England had a decisive victory over the deposed King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. And he believes that Booth, originally from northern England, was one of William’s soldiers who accepted land in Ireland in lieu of pay.

“There was a huge influx of migrants,” Mr. Chellar said, “Hugenots, Danes, Austrians, Scots, all bringing their own ideas” on clockmaking as well as the secondary skills it requires, such as carving, engraving and goldwork.

Clocks became status symbols and, Mr. Chellar noted, Irish clocks of the era are taller and have larger faces and hands than their British counterparts. The Booth clock, for example, is eight feet tall and typical of the size of grandfather clocks at the time. “I think it was a nouveau riche thing,” he said, “bigger was better. Simple as that.”

Despite the success of the early clock makers, Mr. Chellar said he has located only a few dozen in the last 20 years. He said that he and his wife, Carol, “had to dig in every hole around the world — New York, Houston, Paris, Stockholm,” he said, scouring antique fairs and studying auction catalogs to find good pieces.

His latest find was the 1730 bracket clock, which came from a small art auction in Britain. He has priced it at €22,000. It was signed Johnson of Gallway, the Irish port now known as Galway, and has a 12-inch mahogany case and a pull-repeat facility that sounds hours and quarter-hours on a descending scale of five bells.

The third clock now in the shop was made by Samuel Lahee of County Wexford in 1760. Mr. Chellar got it from a collector’s estate.

Listed at €17,000, it is especially rare because of its walnut case, he said. The back is glass, revealing the movement and the heart-shaped device made of polished brass that rests on the pendulum to steady the workings and keep the clock running accurately, an Irish conceit that Mr. Chellar said he had come across in only three or four other clocks.

Mr. Chellar said that all three clocks really belonged in an Irish museum but that neither the government nor the museums had the money to buy them.

Colman Curran, one of the country’s best-known collectors of Irish clocks and a frequent customer of Mr. Chellar’s, is working with the city government of Waterford and the county council to open what he said would be Ireland’s first clock museum. The site in the city’s museum quarter is being prepared for construction, fund-raising is continuing and Mr. Curran hopes that the Irish Museum of Time will open toward the end of 2018.

Mr. Curran and his wife, Elizabeth Clooney, intend to give the museum about 20 grandfather clocks, 20 bracket clocks, 20 wall clocks and 100 pocket watches, all Irish antiques and many bought from Mr. Chellar over the years. (Since retiring from his law practice, Mr. Curran has been spending two days a week with Mr. Chellar, learning to restore clocks.)

The museum “is not going to be a dusty collection of clocks in a room,” Mr. Curran said. “It’s going to be interactive and exciting, exploring the stories and science of time.”

Mr. Curran said the three clocks now in Mr. Chellar’s shop would “take pride of place in any Irish museum; they are super, super pieces.” But the clocks still could end up abroad. (In August alone, Mr. Chellar said, he sold five clocks to American tourists who happened to walk into the shop.)

He admitted, however, that he was in no rush to sell the pieces: “I have to tell myself, you are a dealer, you are not a collector!”

By | 2017-11-02T15:45:00+00:00 November 2nd, 2017|0 Comments

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